Peanuts is a syndicated daily and Sunday American comic strip written and illustrated by Charles M. Schulz, which ran from October 2, 1950, to February 13, 2000, continuing in reruns afterward. The strip is one of the most popular and influential in the history of comic strips, with 17,897 strips published in all, making it “arguably the longest story ever told by one human being”. At its peak, Peanuts ran in over 2,600 newspapers, with a readership of 355 million in 75 countries, and was translated into 21 languages. It helped to cement the four-panel gag strip as the standard in the United States, and together with its merchandise earned Schulz more than $1 billion. Reprints of the strip are still syndicated and run in almost every U.S. newspaper.
Peanuts achieved considerable success with its television specials, several of which, including A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, won or were nominated for Emmy Awards. The holiday specials remain popular and are currently broadcast on ABC in the U.S. during the corresponding seasons. The Peanuts franchise met acclaim in theatre, with the stage musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown being a successful and often-performed production.
Peanuts has been described as “the most shining example of the American success story in the comic strip field”; this is ironic, given its theme is “the great American unsuccess story.” The main character, Charlie Brown, is meek, nervous, and lacks self-confidence. He is unable to fly a kite, win a baseball game, or kick a football. In 2013, TV Guide ranked the Peanuts television specials the fourth Greatest TV Cartoon of All Time. A computer-animated feature film based on the strip, The Peanuts Movie, will be released on November 6, 2015.
Peanuts had its origin in Li’l Folks, a weekly panel comic that appeared in Schulz’s hometown paper, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, from 1947 to 1950. He first used the name Charlie Brown for a character there, although he applied the name in four gags to three different boys and one buried in sand. The series also had a dog that looked much like the early 1950s version of Snoopy. In 1948, Schulz sold a cartoon to The Saturday Evening Post which published 17 single-panel cartoons by Schulz. The first of these was of a boy sitting with his feet on an ottoman.
In 1948, Schulz tried to have Li’l Folks syndicated through the Newspaper Enterprise Association. Schulz would have been an independent contractor for the syndicate, unheard of in the 1940s, but the deal fell through. Li’l Folks was dropped in early 1950. Later that year, Schulz approached the United Feature Syndicate with his best work from Li’l Folks. When his work was picked up by United Feature Syndicate, they decided to run the new comic strip he had been working on. This strip was similar in spirit to the panel comic, but it had a set cast of characters, rather than different nameless little folk for each page. The name Li’l Folks was too close to the names of two other comics of the time: Al Capp’s Li’l Abner and a strip titled Little Folks. To avoid confusion, the syndicate settled on the name Peanuts, after the peanut gallery featured in the Howdy Doody TV show. Peanuts was a title Schulz always disliked. In a 1987 interview, Schulz said of the title Peanuts: “It’s totally ridiculous, has no meaning, is simply confusing, and has no dignity—and I think my humor has dignity.” The periodic collections of the strips in paperback book form typically had either “Charlie Brown” or “Snoopy” in the title, not “Peanuts”, because of Schulz’ distaste for his strip’s title. From November 20, 1966 to January 4, 1987, the opening Sunday panels typically read Peanuts, featuring Good Ol ‘ Charlie Brown.
Peanuts premiered on October 2, 1950, in nine newspapers: The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Minneapolis Tribune, The Allentown Morning Call, The Bethlehem Globe-Times, The Denver Post, The Seattle Times, The New York World-Telegram & Sun, and The Boston Globe. It began as a daily strip. The first strip was four panels long and showed Charlie Brown walking by two other young children, Shermy and Patty. Shermy lauds Charlie Brown as he walks by, but then tells Patty how he hates him in the final panel. This was groundbreaking. Until then, rarely had children expressed hatred for others in comic strips. Snoopy was also an early character in the strip, first appearing in the third strip, which ran on October 4. Its first Sunday strip appeared January 6, 1952, in the half-page format, which was the only complete format for the entire life of the Sunday strip. Most of the other characters that eventually became the main characters of Peanuts did not appear until later: Violet (February 1951), Schroeder (May 1951), Lucy (March 1952), Linus (September 1952), Pig-Pen (July 1954), Sally (August 1959), Frieda (March 1961), “Peppermint” Patty (August 1966), Woodstock (introduced April 1967; given a name in June 1970), Franklin (July 1968), Marcie (July 1971), and Rerun (March 1973).
Schulz decided to produce all aspects of the strip himself from the script to the finished art and lettering. (Schulz did, however, hire help to produce the comic book adaptations of Peanuts.) Thus, the strip was able to be presented with a unified tone, and Schulz was able to employ a minimalistic style. Backgrounds were generally not used, and when they were, Schulz’s frazzled lines imbued them with a fraught, psychological appearance. This style has been described by art critic John Carlin as forcing “its readers to focus on subtle nuances rather than broad actions or sharp transitions.” Schulz held this belief all his life, reaffirming in 1994 the importance of crafting the strip himself: “This is not a crazy business about slinging ink. This is a deadly serious business.”
While the strip in its early years resembles its later form, there are significant differences. The art was cleaner, sleeker, and simpler, with thicker lines and short, squat characters. For example, in these early strips, Charlie Brown’s famous round head is closer to the shape of an American football or rugby football. Most of the kids were initially fairly round-headed. As another example, all the characters (except Charlie Brown) had their mouths longer and had smaller eyes when they looked sideways.
The final daily original Peanuts comic strip was published on Monday, January 3, 2000. The strip contained a note to the readers of the strip from Schulz and a drawing of Snoopy, with his trusty typewriter, sitting atop his doghouse deep in thought. Beginning the next day, a rerun package premiered in papers that had elected to pick it up (see below). Although Schulz did not draw any daily strips that were to run past January 3, he had drawn five extra Sunday strips and these had yet to run. The first of these strips appeared six days after the last daily on January 9.
On February 13, 2000, the day following Schulz’s death, the last-ever new Peanuts strip ran in papers. The strip, which was three panels in length, began with Charlie Brown answering the phone with someone on the end presumably asking for Snoopy. Charlie Brown responded with “No, I think he’s writing.” The panel next to it shows Snoopy sitting at his typewriter with the opening to a letter, addressed as “Dear Friends”. The final panel features a large blue sky background over which several drawings from past strips are placed. Underneath those drawings is a colorized version of Schulz’s January 3 strip, complete with the same note he wrote to the fans which reads as follows:
I have been fortunate to draw Charlie Brown and his friends for almost fifty years. It has been the fulfillment of my childhood ambition.
Unfortunately, I am no longer able to maintain the schedule demanded by a daily comic strip. My family does not wish “Peanuts” to be continued by anyone else, therefore I am announcing my retirement.
I have been grateful over the years for the loyalty of our editors and the wonderful support and love expressed to me by fans of the comic strip.
Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy… how can I ever forget them…
— Charles M. Schulz